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Meris Cherian
Meris Cherian

SHAKESPEARE 400

As you tweet it

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Be it quoting one of his lines, being named after one of his characters, or having had to recite the Bard's verses on stage, everyone has definitely had a Shakespeare moment. If it was playing Juliet in Romeo and Juliet for yours truly, it was having two pet hamsters named Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for Joshua Strebel.

Strebel was ten years old when he got his hamsters, that he named after characters in Hamlet. He remembers how his sister was cast in a Shakespearean play where his mother volunteered to make the costumes and the whole house went into Shakespeare mode for a couple of months. He is today the admin and owner of the Twitter account named Willy Shakes (@IAM-SHAKESPEARE) that he started around eight years ago. He is not one of those blokes who sit and tweet random Shakespeare quotes when he finds time. He is a programmer, who designed a bot to automatically tweet the complete works of William Shakespeare on Twitter, line by line. 'All 112,000+ of them. From all 100+ Sonnets to King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet, A Midsummer Nights Dream… yeah all of them. Every 10 minutes a new line, 24/7/365. Should take about 2 years, 13 days... and finish around August 24th, 2011. Why? Well Why not?', reads his blog entry dated 2009. Strebel (@Strebel) went on to do exactly that. Willy Shakes has over 336,000 tweets and is now working its way through Winter's Tale. The cycle has been completed twice already and is running for the third time now.

Does a twitter account in the name of the Bard of Avon seem like a contradiction? Well, if Shakespeare was around today, Twitter would have been the choice platform for him, for he rightly said, 'Brevity is the soul of wit'. This account has amassed over 48,000 followers and to know the real beauty of it, you have to watch your Twitter timeline as the lines juxtapose between news, random rambling and celebrity tweets.

Strebel uses a public domain copy (non-copyright) file of the entire body of Shakespeare’s work on Google which he uses for the bot to tweet. This bot is a pretty simple program that pulls one line of text from the entire database of plays, sonnets and poems and tweets it. This happens every ten minutes and it takes about two and a half years to do all 112,000+ lines of the Bard. So how does the bot know it doesn't miss a line? Strebel says that the program stores a marker to know which line comes next.

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And how exactly does the bot maneuver around the 140-character limit? “The text file was already pre-formatted into 80 characters long per line, and I wrote a program that read that file into a database as one line of text, that is, one row in the database”, Strebel said. “It did not work out perfect because a phrase may cut in half and many lines/tweets may not make sense on their own. But this sort of made it easy to work with the 140-character limit”.

He also had a reason to opt for Twitter as the medium. Strebel says he joined this social media network back in the early days, around 2008, and created the Willy Shakes account a couple of years later. “Twitter was the hot thing back then. It was new and novel,” he says. “But it was also fairly silly in that people would—still do—tweet meaningless things. Half jokingly, I felt that Shakespeare would add some culture to the Twitter-universe.” Surely, the Bard would approve.

Strebel also mentions that he has had ideas to expand this concept by creating Twitter accounts for different characters, and have each account tweet their specific lines in order and mentioning who they are directing the dialogue at. He has sadly never found the time for it. Talking about mentions and replies, the Twitter world re-tweets his lines and adding their own jokes to them that point to present-day scenarios, especially on the political front. It does make for a few laughs and chuckles.

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Does he ever log into the Willy Shakes account instead of his personal account (@Strebel), and tweet as Will? Strebel says he logs into the Shakespeare account all the time. “If I feel like tweeting something out of character, I let the followers know by prefacing with 'Aside:' on the tweet. For example, 'Aside: Willy is going down for maintenance for a couple hours' or, 'Aside: see this article about Shakespeare'”. That being said, there are a couple of times he has really let his hair down and tweeted off-character. "It was during the NBA Finals. I tweeted as Shakespeare, in his own voice, about LeBron James and Stephen Curry. 'The king doth lost his crown to the dagger of the infidel', or something like that". Joshua Strebel says he also took to his Willy Shakes account to mock Sarah Palin during the time she infamously tweeted out a non-existent word and then compared herself to Shakespeare, who has coined many words that we use today. The internet had a ball out of it and so did old William.

Although Willy Shakes is a huge hit on Twitter, Joshua Strebel claims that this account has never been hacked. “It's just a little side project that took me about one day to set up, and I’ve just let it run since then. People enjoy it, and I think the world needs more reasons to smile”, Strebel writes. When asked to describe any of Shakespeare's plays in 140 characters as he would on Twitter, he wrote came up with this:

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'Hamlet: Makes the Kardashian’s look normal. #NotReally'

Shakespeare was a master craftsman in his time, diligently writing each line and dialogue of his huge oeuvre. Often, when these lines superimpose on the Twitter timeline, it's also worthy of noting how profound Shakespeare still is and how shareable his works are, even in these digital times. 'Tweeting from beyond the grave,' reads the Willy Shakes' Twitter bio. Shakespeare doth transcend time and 400 years on, the Bard still lives.

Joshua Strebel now runs Pagely.com—another successful venture—a specialised hosting company for WordPress that he co-founded. He lives in Tuscan Arizona and spends his weekend dividing his time between his wife, two boys aged 4 and 2, fast cars and snowboarding.

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